Three and a half years ago, in September 2002, the Bush administration issued its National Security Strategy. It was, as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, "the most fundamental reassessment of American grand strategy in over half a century," since Harry Truman set America on its course in the Cold War.
Today, a consensus seems to be rising that the Bush administration is veering off the course it set then. Gerard Baker in the Times of London writes that the days of American military intervention are over. Reporters write that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has shoved aside neoconservatives and taken her stand with State Department professionals. It's not a bad time, then, to look back at the National Security Strategy, to see how it has fared.
When the NSS first appeared, news stories focused on its assertion that America would act pre-emptively. This was just after George W. Bush challenged the United Nations to take action on Iraq and just as Bush was pressing Congress to vote on military action.
"We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary," the strategy read, "to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country."
But pre-emption was not the only doctrine in the document. The words just quoted were preceded by a clause reading, "While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community ..." Even while claiming the right to act pre-emptively, Bush agreed to Tony Blair's plea for a second United Nations resolution to justify military action in Iraq, even though it was justified by previous resolutions and Saddam Hussein's defiance of them.
And there was more to the strategy of securing America than just dealing with immediate threats. The NSS called for "global efforts to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations." Bush critics say that he has undercut that by continuing to reject the Kyoto Protocol. But the agreement Bush concluded with India, China, Japan and Australia to limit growth of greenhouse gases seems likely to produce significant results, while the European countries, for all their hauteur, are failing to meet their Kyoto targets.
Bush has also gone beyond the NSS by agreeing to joint military operations with India and encouraging a Japanese military presence abroad -- both counterweights to Chinese military power. Also going beyond his proposals is his massive commitment to combat AIDS in Africa, which is only hinted at in the document.
In other respects, Bush has not delivered on the promises of the NSS. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, envisioned for 2005, is nowhere in sight. And "an independent and democratic Palestine, living beside Israel in peace and security," won't appear soon.
But there is much evidence that Bush has made good on the multilateral diplomacy that the strategy called for. He has let Britain, France and Germany carry on negotiations with Iran; urged China, the only country with real leverage, to use it against North Korea; and worked with France in supporting the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon. And America is getting more cooperation from newly elected governments in Germany and Canada.
It may be argued that we aren't having much success stopping the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. But the NSS didn't promise success everywhere, any more than it promised military action everywhere. It proposed instead to use American power where and when possible to further "the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity."
Bush has followed the National Security Strategy pretty faithfully, if not without mistakes -- just as Harry Truman made mistakes in following his Cold War strategy. What about future administrations? Truman's successors mostly followed the course he set in NSC-68 for four decades, as Gaddis shows in his new book, "The Cold War."
My prediction: Bush's successors, for all their criticisms (John McCain wants a larger military; Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wouldn't have voted for military action in Iraq knowing what she knows now), will find it hard to move outside the framework of the National Security Strategy, as they take on Bush's burden of fighting what we're starting to call the Long War.